Bob Skilton was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 as an Athlete Member and elevated as a Legend of Australian Sport in 2023 for his contribution to the sport of Australian Football.
Skilton was one of the most decorated and admired footballers to have played the game, combining exceptional skills on both sides of his body with extraordinary courage.
He forged a reputation for loyalty and commitment to his team South Melbourne, and while the team often struggled to make an impact on the scoreboard, he gave the Swans fans something to cheer about across 237 games in a stellar career spanning from 1956 to 1971.
Tenacious but with rare talent, Skilton became one of Australian football’s greatest rovers, to the point where he was named in that first-choice position in the league’s team of the century.
He was among a select band of only four players to have won the game’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal, on three occasions – with wins in 1959, 1963 and 1968.
Such was his dominance across 15 active seasons – he missed one full season in 1969 due to a snapped Achilles tendon – he won nine Swans’ best and fairest awards (1958-59, 1961-65 and 1967-68), a league record he shares with Fitzroy’s Kevin Murray.
He captained South Melbourne in 165 games and was captain-coach of the club in 1965-66, also winning the Swans’ goal kicking award on three occasions (1959, 1963 and 1968).
Skilton represented Victoria on 25 occasions.
He only got one chance to play in a final – in his second last season in 1970 – and it would be one of the highlights of his career, even though the Swans lost.
He coached Melbourne in four seasons (1974-77), but his heart was always ‘red and white’, which made the Swans’ drought-breaking 2005 flag – the first in his lifetime – so special.
Bob Skilton embodied all of the attributes that Australians admire in a sports star, which explains why he was one of football’s most beloved and respected players.
The champion South Melbourne rover was a rare commodity. He was not only cheered on by Swans supporters, but even rival fans could appreciate his extraordinary abilities.
He was so sublimely skilled on either side of his body – he was almost ambidextrous – that a statue made in his honour featured him as a right-footer rather than as a natural left-footer.
Few would have noticed the difference.
Skilton was courageous almost to a fault, always prepared to play the ball when others were intent on targeting him physically in an effort to dull his impact, which rarely happened.
He was selfless to the team cause, and so admirably loyal that he never considered leaving struggling South Melbourne, even though the club played only one final across his glittering career.
Through it all, the humble, immensely popular rover won a swag of laurels and honours, including three Brownlow Medals and nine club best and fairest awards.
But such was his nature, and his fierce will to win, that he maintained he would have traded all of those medals for the premiership medal that never came his way.
Skilton grew up as a passionate Port Melbourne supporter in the VFA – the club his father had played for – and as a kid he worked endlessly on his ball skills to the point where he used to drive his neighbours mad with his endless kicking practice.
He would say later: “Being an ex-Port Melbourne player and coach, (his father) would take me over to the park for a kick, but wouldn’t kick it back unless I kicked on my right foot.
“Eventually I got to the stage where I developed some real pride in it and wanted to do it more, much to the chagrin of my neighbours in Griffin Crescent, Port Melbourne, because I kept kicking the ball against their gate.”
Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but perfect practice does, and Skilton’s skills were crafted out of hard work and a determination to be the best he could be.
Few could tell which one was Skilton’s natural foot. He once made the semi-finals of World Of Sport’s Champion Kick competition using his right foot as his left foot was “crook”.
He progressed from South Melbourne under 19s to the reserves to the seniors in a matter of weeks in 1956, starting as first rover in the Round 6 game against Footscray at the Western Oval. He was only 17, but he got the first kick of the game and never looked back.
Wearing No.14, which he would make famous, Skilton would play 14 games in his debut season. He recalled years later how journalist Bill Cannon predicted in the Argus at the time that “this boy will win three Brownlow Medals.” The humble Swan was a little embarrassed with the forecast, but in time it would prove to be a salient observation.
Part of the secret of Skilton’s success was his commitment to training and his professional approach to preparation which was rare in the age of part-time footballers.
He often trained up to six days a week, with the support of his wife Marion at home with their three boys. The work with sprint coach, trainer and masseur Bill Mitchell honed the strength and core of his body, as well as increasing his speed and endurance.
That hard work allowed him to play through numerous injuries suffered during his career.
Skilton won the first of nine club best and fairest awards in 1958, just before his 20th birthday. He would end up with the equal most victories in a club best and fairest – sharing the record with Fitzroy’s Kevin Murray – with his wins coming in 1958-’59, 1961-’65 and 1967-’68.
Was it any wonder the Swans came to name their best and fairest award after Skilton!
His connection with the Brownlow Medal would be something he would carry with him throughout the bulk of his life. It became a running joke that if he hadn’t been so humble, Skilton could have almost changed his name by deed poll to include ‘Triple Brownlow Medallist’, given that’s how almost everyone referred to him.
He finished third in the game’s highest individual honour in his third season in 1958, before winning his first Brownlow Medal a year later just before his 21st birthday.
Incredibly, in that 1959 season, he finished with 60 goals, the second most of any player in the competition, winning the Swans’ goalkicking award on the first of three occasions.
He won a second ‘Charlie’ in 1963 and a record-equalling third in 1968, putting him in rarefied company as a triple winner of the award.
Skilton would always maintain he felt his best individual season was in 1962, emphasising that any player needed an ounce of luck to win an award such as a Brownlow.
South Melbourne struggled throughout most of his VFL career, winning only 88 of the 237 games he played for the club from 1956-71.
But he never thought of leaving, remaining loyal to the red and white side, but he relished representing Victoria on 25 occasions.
He was the Swans’ skipper in 165 games, a record broken years later by Paul Kelly, one of Skilton’s favourite players to watch, who also wore the No.14 jumper.
He was also captain-coach of South Melbourne for two seasons in 1965-66, and even coached Melbourne for four seasons from 1974-77 after his playing career had finished.
Skilton’s laurels continued long after his playing career as he was one of the original Australian Football Hall of Fame Legends chosen in 1996, as well as the first choice rover in the AFL Team of the Century that same year, leaving Leigh Matthews and Haydn Bunton in forward pockets and Dick Reynolds on the half-forward flank.
Skilton’s one and only taste of finals footy came in 1970 – in his penultimate season – when the Swans met St Kilda in a first semi-final. The Swans lost the game, but Skilton couldn’t believe the atmosphere he had experienced, telling The Age: “What must a player feel like in a Grand Final?’
Sadly, he never got the chance to play in a Grand Final, forever maintaining that he would have been happy to “swap my three Brownlows for one premiership”.
But long after his playing career, Skilton got the next best thing.
By then, South Melbourne had morphed into Sydney, and while he was heartbroken by the move north at first, his loyalty meant he stuck with the Swans.
He watched on from the grandstand with a mix of delight and awe on the day when the Swans broke a 72-year premiership drought in 2005. Then he got to hand over the premiership cup seven years later – in 2012 – when the Swans won another flag.
No one deserved that honour more than Skilton.
He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 and was elevated to legend status in 2023.